Wednesday, June 29, 2005


Taka was terrified. Back in the classroom, he had volunteered as group leader, but now, as the little procession made its way down the darkened hallway, I could sense his fear rising with each faltering step. The four other members of the group huddled close behind, trying to make themselves small enough to disappear into Taka's shadow. Each clutched a sheet of paper like a talisman. Somewhere in the darkness ahead, they would find a sheet of stickers. When each piece of paper had a sticker, they could run back to their teachers and classmates. But for now, it was taking all of their nerve to keep moving forward.

"Kowaiii yo....kowai...(I'm scared)" moaned a four year old from somewhere in the middle of the huddle. Her friend put an arm around her shoulders, and the group of kindergardners stumbled the last few feet to what was usually the door to the rec room, but now revealed itself in the shuddering beam of Taka's flashlight as...a giant black mouth, fangs hanging overhead like stalagtites and fat, contorted bottom lip blocking the entrance. A black sheet hung down inside the mouth, blocking whatever lay within from view. To go inside, the group would have to muster their courage, step over the lip and duck under the teeth, push back the sheet and confront the unknown. And Taka would have to go first.

The group stopped in front of the mouth, completely terror-stricken, all pretense of "I'm too old to get scared anymore" left far back down the hallway. Taka stood wide-eyed and rigid, holding the flashlight in both hands and pointing it up into the blackness. His feet made little shuffles but his body didn't go anywhere. Behind him the fear of the others was only building.

Taka burst into tears. OK, I thought. Time out. The lights will go on, the teacher will come running up with hugs and reassurances and the group will get another shot. These are four and five year olds for Chrissake!

But nothing happened. The kids were on their own, and, after a minute, when they realized no help was coming, the group took responsibility.

"No yelling," said a little girl no more than three feet tall. "That will only make it worse. Here, let's see what we can do for Taka."

The tears were still coming, but slower now, slipping out in sobs as shame filled the vacuum where all the fear had been.

"Taka," said the girl. "Can you go in if I hold the flashlight?" Vigorous head-shaking and more sobs. "How about if Tim-sensei holds your hand?" she asked. Taka opened one eye and considered. "Maybe," he said.

"Ganbatte, ne!" piped up another little boy. "Do your best!"

Taka jammed his soggy little hand into mine, gripping hard, and we crossed over the threshold.

Inside, tables and chairs had been draped in black sheets and moved around to form a maze, too tall for any kindergardner to see over.

"No one leaves until everyone has a sticker!" said the little girl. "Stay together! Ganbatte!" Taka held my hand a little harder.

Suddenly, a ghost jumped out from a dark corner, waving its arms and looming over the screaming kids. My fingers started to lose circulation, but no one ran away, and the ghost retreated, sighing and murmuring.

"Go! Go now! Fast!" The group ran together into the far end of the pitch-black maze, bumping into a long table. Taka's light swept across the surface, revealing the stickers. One by one, each boy and girl peeled off a sticker and pasted it onto the sheet. The little girl who had assumed leadership went last, but as she fumbled with the sheet another ghost, bigger than the last, jumped out and grabbed her by the shoulders.

The rest of the group jumped backwards. "Ganbatte, Natsumi-chan," they yelled, moving closer to the back of the ghost. "Ganbatte! Ganbatte!" The ghost released Natsumi and faded back into the blackness.

Natsumi was crying now too, but she had her sticker. Finally letting go of themselves, the group fled, running and screaming back through the maze, down the hallway and into the classroom.

After each group had negotiated the maze and every face was dry, the head teacher, a tiny old woman with sparkling little eyes asked the students if they had been scared.

"Sugoku kowakatta yo," they shouted. "Really scary! But it wasn't so bad because we were all together. I couldn't have gone in there alone."

Taka's hand shot up. "I couldn't have done it without Tim-sensei," he said, his voice still shuddering.

"What do you say to Tim-sensei then? asked the teacher.

"Thank you Tim-sensei," he said, as formally as possible and bowing deeply. "Thank you so much for helping me."

Friday, June 24, 2005


Japan is a big country, despite what most Japanese will tell you. The four main islands of Japan stretch from the Sea of Okhotsk, which freezes over in winter, to the tropical jungles of Southern Kyushu. Even without counting Okinawa, a chain of smaller islands to the south, from tip to tail Japan would stretch from Montreal to Miami, or Vancouver to San Diego.

The main island, Honshu, is where most Japanese live, and most of them live in a little strip of land on the Pacific between Tokyo, in the North, and Hiroshima, in the South. Japan is like a house party with almost everyone crammed into the living room. And just like that house party, the two or three people who aren't in the living room are probably having the best time.

Which brings me to Hokkaido, the upstairs bedroom of Japan. The second largest of Japan's four major islands, Hokkaido is home to only 5% of the population. It's part of Japan in the same way that Alaska is part of the United States; a northern frontier fully integrated with the national body politic but distinct from the nation. No one is from Hokkaido. It's native people were the Ainu, an aboriginal tribe completely unrelated to the Japanese, victims of the great genocide of native peoples that swept the world in recent centuries.

The people who live here now are either descendants of migrants from the south or are migrants themselves. The original settlers came to the frontier during the the Meiji Reformation, mostly to keep the Russians from claiming the land first. Territorial conflict with Russia simmers to this day, mainly over five disputed islands (and adjacent fishing grounds) just off the coast of Northeast Hokkaido. The goverment doesn't let anyone forget about these islands, which Japan lost in World War II. You can see billboards advocating their return along the roads in this part of the country, and the World Map hanging in my English classroom not only shows the islands as part of Japan, but, just for kicks, has the bottom half of Sakhalin marked as disputed territory, like Kashmir. Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty at the end of the war, but these days, most Hokkaido residents are more worried about Russian sailors making off with their bicycles than Russian soldiers storming the beaches.

Tokyo has great sushi, Kyoto has great fancy vegetarian meals and Osaka has great noodles. Hokkaido is famous for an all you can eat grilled lamb dish called Genghis Khan. Will Ferguson, a former JET who wrote a book about hitch-hiking from one end of Japan to the other compared Hokkaido to a cold can of beer, little beads of ice water trickling down the aluminium, a refreshing blast of freedom in contrast to the humidity and crowds of Tokyo....screw it I'm going home early.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Kindness of Strangers

It is a lonely feeling to arrive tired, hungry and sweat-stained in a strange town after dark, with no place to go and no idea where to sleep. The last few kilometers of the ride felt just as long as the first twenty, and probably took as long too, because even in first gear my legs could barely propel me to the crest of gentle hills. The sun was gone and the light quickly fading when I finally rounded the last corner and saw the lights of Furano laid out in a bright line along the Sorachi River.

Furano straddles the geographical center of Hokkaido, shadowed by the white peaks of the Daisetuzan Mountains. Walk into any Tokyo travel agency, and chances are good that the poster advertising Hokkaido package tours is of a Furano landscape. Only half an hour from Asahikawa by train, with an excellent ski hill, clean rivers, stunning mountain views and fields and fields of lavender, Furano is well positioned to outlive the sad coal mining towns on the other side of the hills.

I'd stopped for dinner in Furano twice before. Last November, after spending a day struggling through chest-deep snow on Ashibetsu-dake, two friends and I arrived in Furano desperate for a hot bath and good meal. We stopped at a hotel near the ski hill with a sign advertising its hot spring, and were promptly ripped off to the tune of $12 each for an uninspiring, badly lit bath and cramped sauna. After receiving glowing recommendations for a local curry restaurant, we drove back downtown, hoping to make up for the disappointment with a memorable dinner.

The smell of curry filled the air as we piled out of the car, hair wet from the bath and bellies empty after a day in the mountains. Drooling, stomachs rumbling, we walked around the corner to where the curry restaurant must be...but there was nothing - only a wooden shack at the edge of a vacant lot. We continued up the street...and the smell evaporated. Circumnavigating the block, we found ourselves back at the car, where the scent was as overpowering as before - an array of spices, sizzling vegetables and meat - it had to be right here! Setting off in the opposite direction, we didn't get ten feet from the car when the smell vanished a second time.

We took another turn around the block, and once again found ourselves standing in front of the vacant lot. I was on the verge of tears. Just then, a couple emerged from the ramshackle shed, patting their stomachs and smiling. The three of us looked at each other, laughed and went inside.

It's no wonder that we didn't recognize the place as a restaurant. There's no sign, no parking lot and the whole place really does look like it could topple over in a strong breeze. There are two stories, with the second floor build in and around the branches of a big pine tree and the first hanging over the concrete bank of a small stream. An old, ratty sofa marks the entrance, where people can sit while they wait for a table.

Inside, the master, a thick man with a silver beard and his assistant, a massive, quiet guy with long hair like Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" dish out huge portions of homemade sausage or mushroom curry with rice and golden potato chunks on the side, served in big white bowls and eaten with one of the large steel spoons kept in coffee cans on the tables. Menus are scrawled in black marker on pieces of cardboard and thousands of business cards cover the flimsy wooden walls, propped up at the corners with birch trunks. An old fashioned stereo system blasts the master's favorite records - Dylan, Merle Haggard, Alabama, Aerosmith and the Chieftans. If you're lucky, there will be some homemade beer available - dark and flavorful, with only a hint of carbonation.

These thoughts were all that kept me from laying out my bag under a bridge 10 km back, and the lonely feeling vanished as soon as I caught the first smell of curry. The place was packed, but the master cleared me a space at the heavy wooden bar and without asking slid an overflowing bowl of sausage curry in front of me.

"Where from?" he asked, in English.
"Utashinai," I replied between mouthfuls. "I biked here for the curry."
He laughed, showing silver teeth. "Where you stay tonight?"
"Camp, I guess," I said. "I have a sleeping bag."
"You'll stay at my place," he said, switching to Japanese. "My name's Toshi."

The Japanese word "uti" has no equivalent in the English language. It can refer to one's home, family, self or office - any space or institution with which the speaker identifies. In a society divided among "in-groups" and "out-groups," uti marks the boundary between public and private, between the face one presents to the world and the personal life maintained behind rice paper screens. When Toshi invited me to stay at his home, he wasn't just giving me a place to crash. He was extending the purest form of hospitality in Japanese culture; he was inviting me inside.

"I'm sorry," I said, accepting his offer. "Thank you."

Toshi topped off my curry bowl and gave me a big plate of fresh salad greens. "From my garden," he said, smiling, and went back to work.

Toshi refilled my bowl twice more that night, teaching me Hokkaido dialect and telling stories about growing up in Furano, telemark ski trips in Daisetuzan, the high-school rugby team he coaches and the curry restaurant, where he'd been dishing out extra helpings for over 30 years. As the crowds thinned, Toshi beckoned me behind the counter, where I ineptly peeled potatoes and joined the welcoming chorus of "Irrashaimase!" when late costumers tentatively peeked into the entrance. When the last traveler was fed and his assistant began cashing out, Toshi asked me why I came to Hokkaido instead of Tokyo.

"I was placed here," I said. "I didn't decide." "It worked out for the best though - I love the mountains, and the fresh air. People are more friendly in the countryside."

"Sore wa soo da nee," he said. "That's the truth. Why do we have these cities? Why do people want to live there? They work all day, go out drinking and screwing. There are always wires overhead, cars going by. If they look up at night they don't see stars. When they go to sleep there is no sound of river, or wind. Neighbors are strangers. And yet the kids on my rugby team can't wait to graduate and move to Sapporo. I don't understand it. Never have."

We left the restaurant at 11 in Toshi's old truck, folding up my bike and putting it in the back. The road took us out of town, into the foothills of the mountains, where it turned to dirt and began following a small stream deep into Daisetuzan. "Trout," he said, pointing at the creek and grinning.

The road dead-ended in Toshi's front yard. "Aiiii," he exclaimed. "My grandkids left the lights on again."

A pack of dogs surrounded the truck, barking happily, then warily when they caught my scent. "It's OK, It's OK," he said to them. "I've brought a friend."

The house was a large post and beam design Toshi had built himself, with a big wood burning stove at its center. The front rooms were done in the Japanese style, with rice paper screens and tatami mats. One of the mats pulled away to reveal a space for heating water during the tea ceremony. My host opened one screen and pointed at the sky. The moon shone through, warm and white against the perfect blackness.

Toshi showed me to the bath, a steaming wooden tub big enough for three, with windows looking out to the forest. After soaking, I found him in the kitchen, taking a brown jug from the refrigerator.

"Can you stay up a little longer?" asked Toshi. "I keep some beer at home."

He poured us each a glass and we sat at his broad kitchen table.

"Tsukareta," he sighed. "You know, I'm on the Board of Selectmen here in Furano. We had meetings all morning. I think the library should be open past 5 in the summer, don't you? So many meetings..."

He drained the last of his beer.

"Come upstairs," he said. "No need for the sleeping bag, but be quiet, because my son and his wife and their kids are sleeping."

Toshi showed me the bathroom, featuring an industrial sized metal sink with six taps. The house was built to hold a number of grandchildren. I brushed my teeth, and let him usher me into a bedroom, where I collapsed under clean white sheets and a heavy wool blanket, too tired and full to lie awake listening to the sound of the stream outside or the wind blowing through the trees.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Pornstand in the Middle of Nowhere

After school let out last Friday I stuffed a sleeping bag and extra socks into my pack, strapped it to the back of my bike, locked the door and pedaled hard with the sinking sun on my shoulders, towards the high mountains and clear rivers of Eastern Hokkaido.

Many things about Japan seem backwards to Americans. Backwards not in the uncivilized sense of the word (although a visitor to the New Years Naked Man festival might disagree), but in the sense that reality in Japan is often contrary to the ingrained beliefs and expectations of the American mind. In Japanese, "I will go to Sapporo tomorrow" becomes "I tomorrow Sapporo to go." People drive on the left. It's rude to wash in the bath, and polite to eat noodles with hearty slurping sounds, the louder the better. Even the geography of Hokkaido itself is backwards. The vast majority of its citizens live West of the central Daisetuzan range, and daydream about the open range of the Wild Wild East when stuck in traffic during the Monday morning commute.

So East I went that afternoon, racing up the main street of of town, through the New Utashinai tunnel and down, down, down to the banks of the Ishikari river. The sky was hazy, the air thick. Behind me, the sun was visible only as a pale yellow smudge struggling to penetrate countless gray layers of haze. Cicadas screeched constantly in the underbrush of the roadside. It felt like summer in Beijing, where air pollution has relegated blue sky to the television screens and glossy magazines where well dressed families proudly show off their new minivans, sportscars and SUVs.

My legs and lungs felt strong, so I stood up and pumped through the uphills instead of switching out of third gear. In less than 45 minutes I coasted into central Ashibetsu and stopped for a Snickers Bar, the first 20 km of the trip under my belt.

Ashibetsu is yet another former coal mining city struggling to reinvigorate its economy in the face of steady population decline. While Utashinai's strategy of transforming itself into a idyllic Swiss village to attract tourism is a little unrealistic, the Ashibetsu city planners must have been on crack when they gave their city a makeover for the 21st century. the grand strategy focused on three projects, which, like Utashinai's Swiss scheme, were intended to attract tourists from the far corners of Japan to this gritty mining town in the hills of Central Hokkaido.

The three projects selected by the city planners involved constructing a massive Chinese pavillion with an adjacent bathhouse decorated in classical Roman style, erecting the largest statue of Buddha in the world and recreating an entire Canadian village in an isolated mountain valley on the far edge of town, even going so far as to hire real live Canadians to live there, modeling Canadian culture for the millions of tourists expected flock to these attractions like bears to pickles. Ten years later the pavillion still stands, but the Buddha isn't the tallest in the world anymore, the Roman baths are moldy and the Canadians have all gone home. Faded billboards with chipped paint still advertise Canadian World across central Hokkaido, and there is no one to stop the curious traveler from poking around the general store, chapel and green gabled houses, but the place is falling apart from neglect, and frankly, I find it too creepy to visit.

One of the novels bouncing around the dustier corners of my mind takes place in Canadian World. A kind-hearted woman from Ashibetsu attends a U.N. conference in New York, where she is moved by the plight of orphaned child soldiers in Central Africa. The children are unwanted by their countries and have no families to welcome them home, dooming them to short, violent lives wandering the African bush. The kindly woman, Mrs. Sato, thinks of the abandoned village in her hometown, the houses, the general store and the public square with its big, red maple leaf standing empty while these African children sleep nervously on the ground, clutching their AK-47s and listening for the footsteps of leopards. Mrs. Sato returns to Ashibetsu a woman on a mission: determined to convince her town to adopt as many of these African children as Canadian World can hold. The same city officials who thought up the theme park in the first place, eager for some positive publicity, quickly agree to her plan, and soon a planefull of skinny teenagers fresh from the Congo jungle arrives at the empty valley in the Hokkaido mountains. Post-modern hilarity ensues.

I left Ashibetsu behind and followed the river into the green hills that lay between me and the Furano, where I hoped to find a meal and a place to sleep. Apart from a few workers stringing up netting to control rockslides, I had the hills to myself. Late evening light glowed on the far side of the river, forming a soft, quiet wall of hazy green. Rounding a corner, I was surprised to see a small shed with on the edge of a dirt parking lot, decorated with large, bright ideograms that I couldn't read. No one was around. Needing a rest anyway, I pulled into the lot and poked my head into the shed. Three vending machines stood against the the back wall. Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan, selling everything from jars of whiskey to eggs. There are even vending machines on top of Mt. Fuji (the job of restocking these machines is always given to the newest employee of the Suntory company).

Seeing vending machines in the shed was not a shock. The shock came from the picture of a schoolgirl lifting up her skirt and peeing that was next to a button marked 3000 yen. The peeing schoolgirl was joined by tentacled space aliens attacking animated schoolgirls, dildos, cock rings, bottles of lube and hundreds more photos of tits, asses, dicks and smiling schoolgirls. Magazines went for about $7, dildos for $30 and videos ranged from about $25 all the way up to $100 for a title that advertised itself in English as hardcore, uncensored and underground.

No doubt hundreds of junior high school boys had made the long bike trip up this mountain road over the years, saving up their allowances for the thrills promised by the hundred dollar video. I could also picture their fathers, too embarrassed to frequent the porn section of the local video shops, making hurried pit stops on solitary drives back from Furano. With visions of tentacle porn, giant Buddhas and Canadian flags caroming around my skull, I pulled back onto the deserted road and pedaled off into the fading light of a Hokkaido summer day.

part two coming tomorrow...

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


One of the most underappreciated aspects of travel, or life in general for that matter, is pace. Back in 4th grade my class planned a 3 week American roadtrip as a group project. We looked up tourist attractions and landmarks, plotted driving times and distances, and pieced together an itinerary that covered practically the entire continental U.S. I thought we had done a good job, but our teacher, Mrs. Dickerson, gave our project an S minus. (I went to a private elementary school, so we received Hs, Ss and Us rather than normal As, Bs and Cs. That, along with several thousand dollars a year, was probably the extent of the difference between public and private elementary education in Central Connecticut). Mrs. Dickerson's main complaint, which I thought unfair, was that we neglected to budget time AT any of the tourist attractions we listed, averaging over 12 hours a day of driving.

If I had attended elementary school in Japan rather than New England, that 4th grade project would probably have earned an A plus. Due perhaps to a lack of vacation time, cultural emphasis on superficiality and conformity, along with a penchant for exhaustive organization, the Japanese idea of travel is best described as a scavenger hunt:

Step 1: Obtain an officially registered list of top ten tourist attractions in a given area.
Step 2: Prepare a detailed itinerary, or better, plan of attack, designed to cover each attraction on the list in the minimum possible amount of time.
Step 3: Spend an average of 8.2 minutes at each attraction, enough time to snap pictures of each other at designated photo points. Girls flash the peace sign; boys are not allowed to smile.

The more slowly one travels, the more one is exposed to the uncertainty and the little encounters with the unexpected that are at the core of exploration. Additionally, and significantly, slow travel generally equals cheap travel, which in turn enables long travel. I can fly from Sapporo to Asahikawa in a half hour for around $100, take a train in 2 hours for $50, bike for free, although I have to buy the bike, or walk, taking 3 days, sleeping at friend's houses or camping, and spending nothing at all, except for the meals I would eat anyway. And clearly, walking or biking promises more memories than faster and more expensive transportation.

Last week, after taking the train back North from Sapporo ($25) on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I decided to walk the last 15 km home from the station instead of taking the bus. The jar of sake I drank on the platform while changing trains in Iwamizawa certainly influenced my choice and did a good job of keeping my spirits high as I walked past the pachinko parlors of Sunagawa on my way up the valley towards Utashinai.

Once past the highway overpass on the outskirts of town, the exhaust fumes and ramen restaurants gave way to wind blown pollen and rice fields. It had been a long weekend, and as the road rolled on and the sake wore off, my feet grew heavy and knees a bit cranky. Still, the sun was shining like it hadn't shone since September of last year, and the thought that I didn't have anything better to do than walk along a country road in Hokkaido for a few hours was a decidedly happy one. Several of my students passed me, being driven home from Sunagawa or Takikawa by their parents after attending cram school or shopping. They stuck their heads out of the car windows as they whipped by, yelling "Haroo! Haroo!" and waving frantically. Adults were just as surprised to see me, but only gave a slight bow to acknowledge my presence, keeping both hands on the steering wheel.

About half way home, I heard music echoing back and forth across the valley. Rounding a corner, the source of the sound became clear - a shabby one story house with a bright tin roof that would not have been out of place on a poor Caribbean island, sitting slightly lopsided on the edge of a broad rice field. Three cars were parked out front, and the bang of drums, thump of bass and wail of guitar spilled out from the windows, accompanied by some of the most badly pronounced English lyrics I've ever heard. The band was rocking out, no doubt about it, fast, loud and unrestrained. The band finished a song as I drew closer, and I could hear them laughing and talking as they adjusted their instruments.

Needing a rest anyway, I tossed my bag down directly across the road from the house, leaned back and watched four crows harass a hawk overhead. The band started up again, as high energy as before, the music spilling out of the little house into the still air of the empty green fields, providing a marked contrast to the peacefulness of the setting. I stayed there for over an hour, clapping after each song, grooving along to my private concert, until the sun sank behind the valley walls. With the band still rocking out as loud as ever, I pulled on a sweatshirt and continued my march through the golden light, up the road towards home.


Thoreau, a native of Concord, Massachusetts, once wrote, "I have traveled a great deal in Concord." His point was that travel depends on one's willingness to seek out the unexpected, or better, to allow themselves to be surprised, a state of mind which, although all the more easily achieved when far from home, is not contingent on geography. To travel is to explore, and one can begin an exploration by taking the long way home, buying a one-way ticket to Bangkok or sucking down a few bong hits and turning over logs at the bottom of last years' woodpile.

Yesterday, I walked up an abandoned, overgrown road that began behind the neighborhood gas station and followed a little stream up into the hills. Five minutes into the walk I surprised a mother partridge, the first I've seen in Japan. She squawked and fluttered in little circles around me, dragging one wing along the ground in a desperate attempt to distract me from her brood, an instinctual response that never fails to fill me with respect for the individual courage and instinctual cunning of mother birds. Standing perfectly still, I watched the tiny chicks, less than a week old, as they peeped aimlessly around my feet, falling over themselves in their blind panic.

Leaving the distressed partridge family behind, I left the path and followed a heavily used deer drail up the ridge, emerging into a vast open area of flooded mining pits, gravel roads and massive piles of black coal. A few abandoned buses were parked here and there, thin chimneys protruding from their roofs. I walked up to one slowly, looking for signs of life, and peered through the rear window. The chimney connected to a small stove, which sat next to a mattress covered with heaps of ratty blankets. Carpet was stapled to the floor around the stove, and a topless Japanese girl smiled down from a calendar tacked up over one of the windows. Cigarette butts overflowed from a plastic ashray next to the mattress. Who lived in this bus, in the middle of such desolation? Were they Japanese, or, as I thought, perhaps an illegal Chinese immigrant? Or a North Korean? Where did they work? Did the stove keep the inside of the bus warm in winter? There I stood, nervously contemplating the unknown in the desolate landscape of a mined-out hillside, less than two kilometers from my house.

Friday, June 03, 2005

From Lost Japan by Alex Kerr (Translated From the Japanese)

Confucius said, 'Kind men love the mountains', and I think it is possible that mountains breed a kinder sort of person than the plains. The fertile plains support a higher population density and require a collective social structure, especially in the case of rice growing, with its intensive irrigation. Much has been written about the complex human relations born from rice cultivation, and Marx even extrapolated from that to posit a uniquely Asian form of society which he called 'Oriental despotism'. In contrast, the hunters and foresters of Iya [a mountainous region of Shikoku], whose rocky slopes hardly supported a single rice paddy, were independent, free and easy people.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Fat of the Land

After the helicopter buzzed back to base, I got to thinking about what my upstairs neighbor, Suzuki-san, had said about old people foraging for mountain vegetables in the hills behind our apartment house. After hiking Shokanbetsu-dake, Ryan, Mark and I had feasted on warabi (fiddlehead ferns) and ainu negi (indian onion) but since then I hadn't searched locally for edible plants. The idea of foraging for my dinner was appealing for several reasons. Most importantly, what food I might find would be totally organic and probably delicious. Looking for vegetables provided a great excuse to wander around in the woods, there was something satisfying about the prospect of finding my food in the wild, and of course, everything lying around in the forest would be free for the taking. Groceries in Japan are expensive even though I don't buy meat, and saving $10 a week on the bill would give me an extra $50 a month to put into stocks...armed with a plastic bag I marched off into the hills.

The upper half of the ridge is choked with bamboo thickets that are a pain in the ass to plow through, but the lower half is forested with second-growth pines that block out enough sun to keep the underbrush managable. The ground is still wet this time of year from the snow melt, and a tremendous array of plants, shoots, ferns and flowers are making up for lost time after the long winter, jockeying for space and sunlight underneath the pines.

Looking around, I realized that there apart from a few fiddlehead ferns, already too big and hairy for eating, I didn't recognize any of the plants. There were some big leafy greens in the wettest areas that looked like skunk cabbage - edible, but not very appetizing. Smaller dark green shoots grew on the banks of a little stream. Thinking it might be a kind of watercress I popped some in my mouth. Not bad, but not watercress either. Too bitter.

Moving further up the ridge, adding some young warabi to my bag, I came across a reddish green stalk, about 30 cm tall, with new leaves sprouting from the top. It looked familiar...I'd seen it, or something like it, in the supermarket recently, but at $2 a stalk I hadn't bought any. I gave the stalk a yank, breaking it off on ground level. The inside of the root was white with streaks of green and it smelled good, vaguely sweet. Into the bag went the stalk. Moving up the ridge, I found more and more of the mysterious plants, along with tiny green bamboo shoots, tender when boiled. In less than half an hour, my bag was full.

Back home, I examined my haul. There were enough bamboo shoots and warabi for a small meal, but what really intrigued me were the stalks, which ranged from 25 to 50 cm in height, the largest about as big around as a banana at the base. They smelled good, and looked familiar, but I wanted to be sure one bite wouldn't send me off on a trip or, worse, condemn me to the shitter for the rest of the night. Taking a stalk with me, I walked outside, where Suzuki-san's wife was tending her flower pots.

"Excuse me," I said, presenting the plant in extended palms like an offering to a temple spirit, "What might this be?"

"Eeeeehhhhh?!" said Suzuki-san, sucking in her breath. "That's udo! It's delicious. See those little leaves - those are delicious made as tempura. As for the rest of it, it's best boiled and eaten with a vinegar-miso sauce. Where did you get that, anyway?"

" In the forest behind the house," I said. ($2 each, times about 30 stalks, found in about half an hour...) I grinned wider. "I'll give you some if you like."

"That's OK," said Suzuki-san, grinning up at me toothlessly from underneath her sun bonnet. "I can get those anytime myself this time of year."

My mental calculations of tremendous profit collapsed. But the udo was delicious.

Why Every Foreigner in Japan Should Keep an RPG Handy at all Times

The other day a helicopter flew overhead while I was working in the garden. This alone qualifies as cause for excitement in sleepy Utashinai, and sure enough several faces appeared in apartment windows as some of my neighbors tried to get a glimpse of the intruder. More curious faces soon emerged as the helicopter made a slow turn and buzzed over my apartment complex again, and then again once more, so low that I started to worry about getting strafed. People were coming out of their houses, heads tilted back at an angle, mouths hanging agape as the rotor blades whipped the trees and bamboo of my backyard into a frenzy. I could see two men in orange suits leaning out of the helicopter door and scanning the forest below.

"What's going on?" I yelled over the noise to my elderly upstairs neighbor, who was watching the commotion from his balcony. "It's a helicopter!" he yelled back helpfully. Most Japanese assume that someone with the vocabulary of a three year old must have the common sense of a three year old as well. In my case this is often true, but even a toddler would recognize a helicopter if it suddenly began hovering 20 meters above his house.

"Why is it here?" I yelled back up to the old man, as the helicopter began sweeping up and down the ridge behind our apartment. "They're looking for something," said the old man. "Probably an old lady went up there looking for mountain vegetables and got eaten by a bear. What an overreaction!" He went back inside, closed the door and turned up the volume on his TV.

Whether or not the old man was right, I wanted to see what was commanding so much attention in the woods for myself, so I grabbed my camera and jogged up the trail into the forest. The bracken and bamboo lay flat on the ground where they were blown by the rotor blades, and farther up the ridge trees were shaking like the tops of palm trees in a hurricane. The noise alone was overwhelming, and only got louder as the helicopter swung around for another pass, the landing gear only a meter or so above the tops of the tallest pine trees.

Bits of bark and needles whipped past me as the helicopter approached. Maybe these are wildlife biologists responding to a bear sighting, I thought. If I was a bear all this noise and wind would be making me very angry. I would probably be looking for someone to maul...

The helicopter was almost directly overhead. I ducked into my sweatshirt hood and waited for the bits of shrapnel to stop swirling, but the storm didn't let up. It was as if the helicopter was parked

I looked up. The men in orange suits were staring at me and gesturing excitedly. Shit, I thought. Do I look that much like a Japanese grandmother with a broken leg? Despite the flying bits of bark I gave the men in the helicopter a wave, a friendly, Hey There! kind of wave, not a Help Me There's a Bear Chewing on my Neck! kind of wave, but under the circumstances, and with the language barrier, I'm not sure that the men in orange suits understood. They just kept waving their arms and shouting into little radio headsets.

This is going to be the talk of the town for a month if I don't get myself out of this, I thought frantically, doing jumping jacks in the howling wind underneath the men in orange suits, trying desperately to show that yes, I could walk out of this forest if I wanted to and no, I'm not the old lady you may or may not be looking for, and yes, if you are looking for a bear, I would be more than happy to go home right now and leave you to your search.

Which is what I did. And the helicopter followed me. Through the forest I ran, over the windblown bamboo, arms in front of my face to ward off shrapnel, the sound of the rotor blades thumping through my head and chest cavity. At the edge of the forest I could see my neighbors standing in their gardens and driveways, looking up wide-eyed as the helicopter approached.
Bracing myself for the embarrassment, I walked as casually as I could across the driveway, into my backyard and into my apartment, locking the door behind me and waiting for the thump thump thump of the helicopter to go away.